It’s tough living in the 21st century. We’ve so thoroughly ensconced ourselves within our hives of technology and so overwhelmed ourselves with information, that our sense of history has become a bit skewed. For example, just looking at my iPhoto, I notice that of my 18,000 digital photos, more than half are somehow from the past year! 16k are from the last 5 years! Similarly, in the yo-yo world, we see so many new releases, so many champions, and so many unbelievable new tricks that 5 years ago can seem like a galaxy far, far away. And while recent history could not feel more vibrant, learning about the characters which defined the vast majority of yo-yoing’s history can seem about as easy as programming a Betamax VCR with a Sanskrit manual.
Thus, for my first Top 5 column, I thought I’d flip back through the annals of Yo-Yo History to dust off some names which some of you may not be familiar, but who, regardless, irrevocably changed the history of our little obsession, and who could still mess your face up pretty good:
5. Larry Sayco – I got to meet this guy a few years back, and he was scary-awesome. He was probably about 75 then. He may have lost a step, but he’s still out there shredding, selling the same molded plastic yo-yo’s he makes in his workshop to sell at small shows throughout New England. When I visited him, he flawlessly demonstrated the into-the-pocket trick “Coin Deposit”, not only on himself, but into my own pants as well. He also had blindfolded trapeze on lock, despite using an impossibly thin wood-axle looper.
4. Dale Myrberg – Dale has been in the game professionally since the mid-eighties, and his performance experience has yielded the kind of consistency that just freaks out modern players. He pretty much embarrassed me at Worlds a few years ago when he challenged a bunch of modern players to try his tricks on stage using golden age yo-yo’s. As modern fixed axle luminary Drew Tetz related: “In the last year before shoe-judging, Dale wandered into the Fixed Axle Throwdown entirely by accident. He started walking out, but Jack [Ringca] grabbed him and let him know that he was a sudden wildcard entry into the final round. Dale took two Russells out of his pocket and said “Just tell me when to stop,” before launching into two solid minutes of every ridiculous old school trick you’ve ever seen, the majority of which was linked into two monster combos by continuous regens.” Check out his textbook-melting Split-the-Atom into Coin Deposit in this vid (and just try not to make the same incredulous moan the guy filming it does).
3. Dale Oliver – As close to a living legend as we’ve got in yo-yoing, if you haven’t hung out with Dale, you’re missing out big time. His stories span a lifetime of sharing yo-yoing with the masses, and are as unbelievable as his skill. Tales of traveling through Mexico on yoyo promotions with Tommy “Punchy” Hatcher, a guy who was on the Duncan payroll for the sole purpose of beating up demonstrators from rival companies; stories about being asked to relinquish his lifetime membership to the Playboy club and refusing…there is very little that Dale hasn’t done and even less than he’ll admit to. You might think a guy who has played a lifetime of yo-yo would be pretty jaded about modern playing, but no. I sat next to Dale during the 07 Worlds finals and he was hooting as loudly as anyone in the room about Yuuki’s legendary freestyle. Game recognize game.
2. Bob Rule – A student of the inimitable [#1, wait for it], Bob, to me, represents the quintessential Duncan Yo-Yo Man. He, along with comrades like Bud Lutz, Jack Russell, and Bill Cafe, surely put on enough miles to circumnavigate the globe while demonstrating yo-yo in the US in the 50’s and 60’s. Along the way, he pioneered moves like Hydrogen Bomb (shown here by Dennis McBride, another guy who could easily be on this list) and bewildering reverse-spin tricks. Could he do Superman? Nope… no more than you could strategically build yo-yoing into a national fad through a series of playground demos and drug store contests. Which would you say is the more impressive trick? Unlike grandmasters like Dale, McBride, and YYJ’s Bill de Boisblanc, Bob never really made the move to transaxles, even today preferring a Duncan Ignite. Even so, he’d crush you under the weight of 50+ years of crazy gimmick-tricks like you were one of the adoring grommets at his Five and Dime contests. Check out Duncan’s classic footage of Bob (and some other greats) at the first National Yo-Yo Contest in 1962 to get a sense for how humble Bob is, and if you haven’t already done so, go lose a few hours nerding out over the throwback photos at his archive site.
1. Barney Akers – Yes, I realize this guy’s dead – what of it? I’m reasonably certain Barney’s immortal spirit could return from the grave and give your hard-earned skills a swirly anyway. Barney Akers was the ultimate innovator and demonstrator of the 40’s and 50’s, an era when yo-yoing was being actively and permanently emblazoned into American cultural consciousness. Imagine coming up with the tricks and techniques which defined the play of that generation… Now imagine it at a time when there was no access to the internet, the best trick anyone for 500 miles had ever seen was Rock the Baby, and even the most basic yo-yo trick vocabulary had yet to be be invented. Oh, and you have to be able to demonstrate using a Duncan Bo-Yo (the ones shaped like a bowling ball). That’ll give you an idea of the kind of challenging landscape Barney Akers faced. Except where a normal human yo-yo player would see difficulty, Barney saw wide-open opportunity, which I guess is why his own indelible stamp remains on yo-yoing even 30 years after his demise.
I’m not trying to knock the modern world with this Top 5, promise. I live here and keep all my stuff here too. And yoyoing is SO GOOD right now. It would be easy enough to watch Janos and think “Man, our tricks are way more tech than those guys could ever dream of.” And of course they are… THAT WAS THE WHOLE POINT. Their tricks are what continue to make ours possible. They paid for our passage. The multiple lifetimes of practice these players (and their contemporaries) put in was done with the faith that yo-yoing is meaningful, and with the hope that it would be taken deeper and further. If you’re evaluating the skill of those who came before you without considering its historical context, you’re not actually evaluating their skill at all! So the next time you throw a casual session, maybe throw a Sleeper down for Barney (and everybody else who threw it down before you). I never got to meet him, but I bet he’d get a kick out of the crazy stuff we’ve come up with while standing on his shoulders.